The warning from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was polite but firm: The U.S. Department of Justice will not stand idly by if it feels Texas intends to halt or reverse gains for minority voting rights.
That was the message Holder delivered on the University of Texas campus at the library of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Holder spoke just as Texas is squaring off with federal government over two major political voting issues: redistricting and voter ID.
Holder said that the redistricting maps legislators drew this year show that gains made under the Voting Rights Act are being challenged by a Legislature intent on protecting incumbents rather than on having candidates compete for votes.
Maps the Republican-dominated Legislature drew, he said, fail to reflect the burgeoning Hispanic growth in Texas, as indicated by the 2010 U.S. Census.
“We intend to argue vigorously at trial that this was the kind of discrimination that Section Five [of the Act] was intended to block,” Holder said, referring to the current federal litigation over the redistricting maps. A panel of federal judges in San Antonio redrew maps for legislative and congressional districts in Texas, but the U.S. Supreme Court blocked those, at least temporarily, last week. The maps that will be used in next year’s elections are still uncertain, and it is unclear whether the issue will be decided before the scheduled primary elections in March.
Texas’ voter ID law, which requires that voters furnish a state-issued photo ID before casting a ballot, is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. That date could be in jeopardy, though, because the Justice Department has the authority to review election laws passed in states with a history of racial segregation and discrimination. In Texas, Democrats argue the voter ID law will disenfranchise minorities, the elderly and students, while Republicans and other proponents say it will stamp out voter fraud.
Holder did not delve into specifics about Texas’ ongoing battle with the Justice Department over voter ID, but he said that Texas’ proposal — one of more than a dozen passed in the country since January — will undergo a thorough and fair review.
The department has refused to grant Texas pre-clearance of the voter ID law since July. The Justice Department has repeatedly asked the Texas secretary of state’s office to provide details about the 605,576 registered voters who do not currently possess a valid ID, including how many of those voters have Spanish surnames, which counties they reside in and the estimated racial makeup of the group. The Justice Department requested that Texas provide the same information for the registered voters who currently possess a valid form of identification, or one that has expired within 60 days. The state submitted some information, but the department has said since the summer that it needs more data. The pre-clearance request is still pending.
The pre-clearance process under the Voting Rights Act was last reauthorized, overwhelmingly, in 2006 under President George W. Bush, Holder said, but there are five separate lawsuits challenging the rule. The lawsuits, he said, indicate that some politicians are determined to stymie advancements made since 1965.
Holder said the Justice Department would also continue to challenge state-imposed immigration laws. The Obama administration has reported a record number of deportations since 2009. Immigration has and should remain, Holder said, under the purview of the federal government. Some of the states' proposals also reek of anti-immigrant discrimination, he added.
“We can never forget we are a nation of immigrants. All of us, save Native Americans, trace our lineage to someplace else,” he said. “That is the genius and the strength of this nation.”
Holder found himself in a friendly audience and received a standing ovation before and after his speech. But before the attorney general even began his remarks, opponents of the Obama administration lambasted Holder. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said voter ID laws are constitutional and the administration should put its energy into more pressing issues.
“Facing an election challenge next year, this Administration has chosen to target efforts by the states to protect the democratic process,” Cornyn said in a statement. “They would do well instead to focus on job creation, the economy, and reducing our national debt.” Cornyn included in his press release results of a June Rasmussen poll that showed a majority of voters, including 63 percent of Democrats, support a photo ID mandate.
But groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the Southwestern Voter Registration Education Project and the Texas NAACP vowed to ensure that Holder and the administration stand up for minority voting rights.
“Texas is home to the second-largest Latino population in the U.S. and demographic projections show that by 2040, Latinos will constitute the majority of citizens in the state,” the groups said in a joint statement. “Texas also possesses a growing Asian-American population and an African-American population of more than 2 million. The increasing number of racial and ethnic minority citizens in Texas highlights the need to protect vigilantly the voting rights of the state’s minority electorate.”
Holder’s speech came the same day the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against Wisconsin’s over its voter ID law, which the group alleges is unconstitutional. Attorneys for the group said the case could forecast the fate of similar laws, including the one in Texas, which ACLU staff attorney Jon Sherman said is even more restrictive.
Unlike the Texas law, Wisconsin’s allows the use of passports and college ID cards. Like opponents of the Texas law, Sherman argued the burden would be too great on some potential voters to obtain the documents needed to get a photo ID. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include a homeless military veteran who doesn’t have the means to obtain his Illinois birth certificate, and an 84-year-old resident who has voted in every election since 1948 but doesn’t have a photo ID.
“I feel like we’ve already had this conversation as a country," Sherman said. "We don’t make people pay money and run around to six different government agencies on order so they can be able to vote.”
Holder made no mention of the ongoing Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is running to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, issued a statement in advance of Holder’s arrival calling for the attorney general’s resignation.
"It is clear to everyone that the Obama Administration, specifically Attorney General Holder, has intentionally misled the American people about their knowledge of the Operation Fast and Furious gun running program that has resulted in the death of at least one American," Dewhurst said. "He ought to take the honorable course — apologize to the family of the U.S. Border Patrol agent killed by his department's malfeasance, and then resign."
Holder did not mention Dewhurst, Cornyn or presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry during his speech.
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.